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David Leser asks good questions
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David Leser asks good questions
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Conversations
16 March 2021

David Leser asks good questions

Interview by Mele-Ane Havea
Photography by Toby Burrows

As I prepare to talk with award-winning Australian journalist David Leser, I realise it’s almost a year to the day that I was set to interview him in front of an audience. That event was cancelled due to the rising concern over a novel strain of the coronavirus. But at the time, I was deeply immersed in his new book, Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing. Reading his nuanced and complex account of misogyny over generations and geographies left me feeling a mix of horror, relief, resignation and renewed energy for change.

I was struck when reading his work by what seemed to be a dogged commitment to searching for truth and exploring complexity. A commitment he’s demonstrated for over 40 years working across the world covering war zones, political uprisings and peace movements, with intimate psychological portraits. More recently, his work has focussed on misogyny and climate change.

In the year that’s passed, we have experienced a global pandemic, which, for the many, was a period of increased social isolation. This occurring in a world where we share information at light speed over social media platforms seems to make it harder and harder to find the facts and discern truth. Our collective ability to hold nuanced conversation seems to be decreasing at a time when it is more essential than ever. I sit with David to explore these issues.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Discussed in this Story

MELE-ANE HAVEA: This issue of Dumbo Feather is about the destabilising and destructive effect that disinformation is having on our culture, about the idea that we are now living in an attention economy that is being controlled by many forces, most of which are not benevolent in nature. In that context and in the context of your extremely long and distinguished career as a journalist – as an activist for truth in many ways – I’d love to start by hearing some of your reflections on our time, on where we find ourselves.

DAVID LESER: Well there’s so much here. I would go so far as to say that disinformation and misinformation, some of it unconscious, more of it wilful and often sinister, are potentially the greatest ‘threats’ that we have to a liberal democracy, to a reasonable and robust exchange of ideas. It’s a threat to truth-telling, to the idea that we can coalesce around common facts. So at the same time that the planet is roaring, that we are occupying a country which is ground zero for climate change, that we see the storming of the Capitol of the world’s most important democracy, that we have so much sadness, loneliness, violence against women, suicide and economic deprivation, so many structural problems, I could go on – at the same time as all of this, we have technology disseminating and amplifying all this disinformation. And it feels like we’re now at the precipice, if not actually falling over the precipice. What do they say about journalism? That it’s the first brushstroke of history. You collate and distill as much as you can in a short space of time. I don’t know whether I’ve ever got to the absolute “truth”. Certainly, it’s seen through my own biases. The people I have interviewed or failed to interview, the motivations that people have for telling me what they tell me, the editorial policy of the publication – so many things inform what is truth. As we know from quantum physics, your place in the experiment actually informs the outcome. So there’s no such thing as objective truth. But there are facts. COVID exists and can kill you. The US elections were not rigged. The Californian wildfires were not started by wealthy Jewish bankers deploying laser beams. But the way the information ecosystem has been deranged and polluted now, there will be lots of people who argue otherwise. I grapple with this every day because it also goes to the heart of what’s worth doing as a journalist, what story should I tell? What is the issue that I should give my time to?

There are so many things that I want to delve into more deeply. You mentioned the threat of disinformation to our liberal democracy. And “the precipice” that we may well be falling down from now. I wonder if you could talk more about that.

When we got the internet we didn’t have social media. And when we got social media we didn’t have supercomputers in our pockets. And when we got smartphones we didn’t have technology that could fabricate your face, your voice and create, through artificial intelligence, you saying something that you never said. On one level it’s fun. It’s fun to have the latest gadget, to be able to access a world of information. There’s no end to what technology wizards will create. But we know there are bad actors, state actors. We saw it in the 2016 US presidential elections where Russian trolls created Facebook pages with fake Americans, principally to turn Americans away from Hillary Clinton. And they did. We know despite the denials by the Trump administration that Russians interfered with the 2016 elections. We know that it’s in the Russians’ interests to damage, if not destroy, what western liberal democracy stands for – the very idea of pluralism, of the multicultural state, of human rights, of all the things that have been enshrined in western liberal democracy from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights onwards. So if you’ve got the technology to set up deep fake, which is synthetic media where anybody anonymously can take something from you and have you say things you never said, that not only means you can create literally fake news all the time, but everybody can deny whatever it is they said because they can claim it was fabricated. Social media has atomised the world. There is no issue now upon which we can agree. Between right and left, amongst the left itself, on every single issue there is a war for what the facts are. It’s very complicated because expertise now is often just rubbished.

Doesn’t matter whether you’ve got an armful of degrees, whether you’re a climate scientist or a virologist or an epidemiologist. That expertise means nothing to those who’ve decided expertise is worthless. And yet, there’s a kernel of truth in everything because experts do get it wrong. We know that the scientific impulse is to test hypotheses. For a time there’s a consensus and then there’s some light bulb moment where someone sees that the consensus is wrong and that, for example, Newtonian physics actually is not the way the world works. So views are overhauled. Take the COVID crisis. The World Health Organisation and CDC got that wrong on the wearing of masks. The two most respected health bodies in the world at the beginning of the pandemic not only had little to say about wearing masks, they actually said that they don’t help. Well they were wrong. So that brings expertise into disrepute. The New York Times makes a mistake, and it brings the so-called paper of record into disrepute. But with all these institutions at least there is a preparedness to admit mistakes. When do you hear Fox News or Sky admitting to a mistake? Or Breitbart News? Or QAnon? Or Newsmax? These people peddle conspiracy theories and misinformation. Whereas those who try to adhere to the idea of facts are held to a much higher standard. That to me is terrifying. Despite all of social media’s connective capabilities, the harm that’s being caused now where we have no agreement, no consensus, no convergence on anything anymore is truly alarming. In a place like Byron Bay, where I used to live, the anti-vaxx, 5G, Bill Gates conspiracy theories are running amok. Because some people there simply don’t trust authority. They regard themselves as spirited, independent people who don’t subscribe to any kind of dominant paradigm. And as we know, the way the algorithms work, they are just being led into these spaces which double down on the belief loop they’re in – defying the experts who should be questioned, but not to the extent they are. That’s the precipice. But I think we’ve actually fallen over it. I think we’re in free fall into a world that is really difficult to know how to navigate. And I don’t think more technology is actually going to help.

What strikes me as so terrifying in what you say, and it’s something I think about a lot, is that all of us, political alliances aside, are facing the climate emergency and there is a need to pull together. We need to recognise how interconnected we are, and to act in ways that we haven’t ever been able to before. And so I wanted to pick up on something you said in the middle of your first answer about, “What am I to do? How am I to respond?” You’ve chosen to respond by focussing through your book on how the patriarchy has manifested in the world, and on climate change. These are issues you have chosen to lean into, facts that you have researched, understood, shared, exposed. They’re stories that you have prioritised. Can you share some detail about your decision to focus on them in the first place?

It’s an interesting question because with Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing, that book didn’t just come out of this electric, galvanising moment that was the “Me Too” movement’s rise in 2017, although Tarana Burke coined the phrase over a decade before. On one level it was some of those questions that I ask in the book. Can a man write about this? Should a man write about this? And if so, how? How does power work? Why are women so enraged? But the genesis of my interest was a long time in the making. I’ve always loved my female friends and colleagues, my mum, my sister, my daughters. When I was a boy I felt more comfortable with girls because the conversations felt more real. There was not so much chest thumping and posturing as there was with boys. But at the same time I had really close male friends and still do today. I was in men’s groups where we would try to navigate worlds that were – as a generalisation – less accessible to men than to women, which is the world of the heart and what’s really going on for you. So I’d been long interested in that subject. When the “Me Too” movement happened I thought it was probably the craziest thing I’ve ever tried to write about. It reminded me of when I was a correspondent driving into the Gaza Strip at the beginning of the Palestinian uprising in an Israeli marked car and not realising how much danger I was driving into until the car was attacked. With “Me Too,” there was this feeling of, Should I take this on? My younger daughter Hannah begged me not to. I just thought, no. Men are perpetrating most of the violence, so men have a responsibility to try to end the violence. That to me was the basic premise. How are we as men going to talk to our friends or the men we meet who engage in casual sexism or misogynist jokes? How are we going to deal with our colleagues? How are we going to engage in the battle of ideas? How are we going to create new models for healthy masculinity which is fit for purpose? So that men don’t end up killing their partners or their children or beating them to a pulp or coercively controlling them or sending domestic violence refuges into a state of overflow, or, indeed, committing suicide? What are we going to do about male rage? Directed outwards or directed inwards? For me, the importance of that far outstripped my caution about entering the discussion and my respect for the fact that, actually, men should just shut up and listen. Maybe it was too early for me to enter this discussion but I felt this had been percolating a long time inside me. Then I started to see things for what they were. I thought I was awake when I was actually nowhere near awake on what had happened to the women in my life. To my daughters, my female friends. Even my mother started talking about stuff that happened when she was a teenager, she’s 92 next week. All the things we know that have been normalised I thought I was awake to, but I wasn’t. It’s the same with climate change. I thought that I was cognisant of what was happening to the natural world, that I carried a connection to nature. But that was a preposterous notion. I never grew up on the land. I’m a city boy. Often I would walk from A to B and fail to notice the trees. I didn’t heed nature. I didn’t listen to it. But when the country was on fire last year, I was in the Yarra State Forest, on my way up to La La Falls. And I heard this little girl behind me say to her mother, “What’s that smell Mummy?” Her mother said, “That’s nature darling.” And the daughter said, “Oh it’s like all the birds are wearing perfume.” It was this childlike wonder and awe for nature that I’d lost. First Nations people have always understood the moral reciprocity between humans and nature. So it was like I was looking at our world potentially being destroyed for the first time. I actually had this epiphany that I was seeing the trees for the first time. Because those trees were at risk of being destroyed. I was noticing the smell and the texture and the call of the wild in a way that I hadn’t before. That story became my love letter to nature because it spoke to something deep in my heart. That’s where I’ve veered to with the stories I write. For a long time I wrote stories that I thought I should write, that would prove my mettle. All that vaulting ambition and questing intellectual pursuit that comes with being a journalist. Getting all the facts and marshalling them. Telling the story and getting scoops and making sure you don’t get sued. Taking on power. All that was valid. But that’s not what drives me now. What drives me now is actually writing stories that somehow build bridges. Because going back to the beginning, the bridges are being torn down. They’re in smoking ruin. We don’t know how to speak to each other with any kind of respect. Particularly with people with whom we vehemently disagree. We don’t even consider the fact that there might be something of what they say which contains a kernel of truth worth considering. It’s difficult because when you hear people spouting conspiracy theories you just feel, How do you talk to those people? So now I’m at this place in my career where I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I’m actually doing something that Paul Keating once advised journalists to do which is to not write for a while. To read a lot. And he didn’t say this, but to commune with nature. To actually have a different relationship to the world. Because like practically everybody, I suffer from attention deficit disorder. There’s just too much coming at me, at us. How do I push back from that? Is all this information going to improve me? I daresay it’s not. I think what improves us is this whole other thing. I’m going to go off on a tangent now. We used to have a grand narrative. Whether you lived in Africa or the Middle East or Asia or Europe, there was a grand narrative. It was a religious narrative. It was a belief in God, however you imagined that. Then of course superstition and dogma was thrown out and the ‘Age of Reason’ dawned. We came to believe in science. We’re now in a postmodern world where no grand narrative at all actually holds any weight. So where do we get our meaning from? It explains why we see this atomising going on, this tribalism. People get their meaning from far right ideology or from identity politics. Or from their place in a professional class, or marginalised community, or from a fundamentalist reading of theology. But ancient wisdoms, philosophies that held true for thousands of years no longer do. I mean, we’re the first society probably in the world, in human history, that just has this conceit that there’s nothing going on in the world that has a higher or deeper or more mysterious purpose. It’s just you’re born, you die, you rot, there are worms, end of story. That’s the fundamentalist atheist view. Which is a very arid view.

I’m going to build on that. In addition to the arid atheist view, there’s a kind of separateness and a hierarchy that is implicit in the way we see ourselves, particularly in our relationship with the natural environment. It is one of domination. That for me feels like a very lost place to be.

Yeah I agree. I believe that the land has memory. I think that if you were blindfolded and parachuted into Poland and you landed feet first into Auschwitz you would feel something terrible, something dark, had happened on this land. I think our bodies feel things without being able to understand it. We feel when we’re safe, we feel when there is menace when we walk down the wrong back alley. We know before we know. I also think water possibly holds memory. Rivers that have run through a particular valley for millions of years, before humans ever walked on the earth, hold memory. I love that question that I don’t think is foreign to First Nations people: what does the earth think of you? What does the earth think of us? Not, what can we do with it? But what does it think of us? Because we know now how trees communicate. How they trade information, how they defend each other. That’s not a Roald Dahl story, that’s increasingly the science, and they call it the “wood wide web” for a reason. We’re finding out more and more about trees and about plants and animal intelligence. This domination of nature impulse has brought us to our knees. Our collective mindset is so at variance with this idea of moral reciprocity with nature. Instead, it’s the idea of the sovereign individual.

So this strikes me as a story. One which, for the record, I deeply believe. Not because of something I can process logically, but something that I feel in my body. There is the truth of connection, the truth of our humility in the face of the natural world, and our part in it – our lack of separateness. And then that other reality we find ourselves in: increasingly atomised, disconnected, polarised in thought, unable to agree. I wonder how you hold those two perspectives. Because it seems to me that we are both one and separate.

Sometimes I weep for the planet, and for us as a species and our infinite ability to be the architects of our own demise. It’s fascinating how we can do that. It’s brought us to this calamitous moment. If you’re awake I don’t think you can not weep literally or metaphorically for where we find ourselves, and feel powerless in the face of major political parties who are still hostage to an increasingly obsolete fossil fuel industry. And alongside that, what technology is doing to us by design in the hands of bad actors – from outside but also from within, the way it’s pitting us against each other.

Divide and conquer.

This is how the western liberal humanist ideal will collapse. Trump’s gone but look where we are. He’ll get acquitted by his nativist right wing conspiracy-driven minions who’ll never regard Joe Biden as legitimate and they will believe in that as fervently as you and I believe that a tree is something to behold and to revere. So on the one hand I weep, and on the other hand I feel that I need to do whatever I can. When I was a young journalist I was like, “I’m going to be a real agent for change.” My first editor said, “You’re way too idealistic.” So I don’t have any grandiose notions that anything I do will even move the dial.

Then why do you do it? What drives you?

Well because we have to do what we can. My skill is storytelling and interviewing and trying to understand some of the drivers of human behaviour. The contradictions that we hold. I’m much better at that than I am at anything else I can think of. So even if it doesn’t change the world, it gives my life meaning, and it might actually help someone. And in the face of these really perilous times, I can’t not do it. Plus the weeping sits side by side with the absolute celebration of life, with the sheer delight that I get from my daughters and my mother while she’s alive, my siblings, my friends, the unforgettable strangers that I might happen to meet. A moment at dusk or at dawn where the light is just a particular way, bringing you right up close into the present – knowing that that moment’s not going to come again. Not like that. And not like this. You and I will talk again, but we’ll never have this conversation again.

I think it’s so hard for us to hold two competing opposites as true. The grief in the moment and the celebration of it. Maybe one of the reasons why we are so prone to being distracted, divided, disconnected by powers that be is because we don’t want to face the other truth. It comes back to courage I think. We can’t be present in the moment if we are not present to the pain.

I can’t hold the pain actively every moment of every day, because that would be a recipe for suicidal despair. It’s too overwhelming. I have to park it internally. Yes I know what’s going on. I can see what’s happening. But I choose in this moment love, respect and, as much as I can, the capacity to listen. There’s different types of listening. There’s the listening where I’m just waiting for you to say your thing and then come back with the point I’ve been thinking of the whole time you’ve been talking. Then there’s the other kind where I’m feeling you. You’re feeling me. There’s empathy. And then there’s another kind of listening even deeper again, where whatever wants to emerge between you and me, will emerge in this space. Neither of us knows. That’s giving ourselves over to something mysterious. So I want to be able to be with that at the same time as hold where we are. To your question of, how did we get here? I mean, haven’t we always been at some version of here? Isn’t human history the story of the polarities of good and bad, love and hate, greed and selflessness, courage and cowardice? Those themes are encapsulated in all the great myths and a lot of poetry and in the archetypes that we carry. To be human is to be assailed by the contradictions of what it means to be human, which is, we seek security because we’re inherently insecure. We’re insecure in our bodies, we don’t know what will happen. We get the call that someone we love has just died and it changes our life irrevocably. From one second to the next everything in the world is different. We’re vulnerable where we live now, because of climate change, but we were vulnerable if we lived in a war-torn region or we were fleeing drought or famine. That’s why our homes become really important to us. Because it shores up our sense of security in the face of what we can’t often bear to acknowledge, which is that everything is uncertain. We give ourselves certitudes. “This is how it is.” “This is what I believe.” We join a group, either online or in real community – a brotherhood or sisterhood of certitudes. That automatically sets you up against those who don’t subscribe to those certitudes. Sixty-five thousand years ago you saw someone from another clan and you clubbed them over the head. You went back to your cave with your people. The “othering” is part of what the brain does. That primitive part of the brain, that little acorn of an amygdala which goes into fight or flight is set up to notice who’s like us and who’s not. So we’ve been here for 65,000 years and we’ve sent people to the moon and we’ve designed the Internet. But we’re still primitive in that sense and we still respond to the primal instincts that we’ve always responded to. We want people to agree with us. We want to feel safe. We want to know that the sun is coming up tomorrow morning. Now, because of technology and where we find ourselves in history, and because of this domination principle, we think we can lord it over nature and get away with it. We find ourselves at this junction where we have to hold opposites. Holding opposites is difficult. When Trump was elected my cousin came from Alabama. I hadn’t seen her for 35 years and she’d never been to Australia. I was her host in Sydney. I didn’t know that she voted for Trump until we were driving around Sydney and she said something, and I was like, “Oh my God, you didn’t vote for Trump did you?” This is January of 2017, he’d just been inaugurated. I didn’t know a Trump supporter, I’d certainly never driven around Sydney with a Trump supporter. And she said, “My word I did! I would never, ever vote for that wicked, wicked woman!” And I screamed. I yelled. I went “Oh!” I swore. I pulled my car over and I screeched to a halt and I said, “Oh my God, I’m driving around Sydney with a Trump supporter!” And she said, “Are you throwing me out of your car?” And I said, “Yes! No! I don’t know!” Then I collected myself and we went and had a drink. I apologised. I wrote a column about how I was part of the problem. Did I ask her why she voted for Trump? No. Did I think about the fact she grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and Alabama’s a red state and that’s where Trump actually had more support than practically any other state. Did I think about that for a second? No. Did I enquire as to why she didn’t like Hillary? No. Did I do even the most basic cursory investigation being a journalist, of asking questions? No. I just had my amygdala hijack and behaved appallingly. Now I still disagree with her. But I love her, she’s my cousin. If I’d had the conversation again – maybe we will – I would hope that I would come at it differently. I would want to understand. There’s increasingly less of that everywhere, of actually wanting to understand those with whom we disagree.

What do you think has changed in yourself, between the time you were with your cousin and now?

Well on one level, the succeeding four years only confirmed my darkest concerns about Trump. It would be so easy for me to double down on that. But what’s changed in me is that we’re not going to get there with anger. We’re not going to get there with righteous indignation. We may never pull back from the precipice because it’s hard to reverse gravity when we’re already falling. If I found myself in a room with someone who talked about women in a disgraceful way or of wanting to kill Jews or Muslims, I don’t know whether I would keep my cool. But I know deep down that my anger is not going to solve it. Anger just begets anger. We’re going to both go into our respective corners hurling verbal incendiary bombs at each other. There’s that recognition that we’re all part of the problem. That what I’m doing, talking about all the conspiracy theorists, all the Trumpists, all the misogynists, it’s like they’re the ones with the problems. It’s not me. I’m not stuck in my ecosystem, even though I am. I don’t have biases, conscious or unconscious, like them, although I do. I’m not in a feedback loop like them – yes I am. We’re all doing it to some extent. I don’t know how we stop. Every issue is so complex. Take something like, and I’m not qualified to talk about this for very long, but gynaecology. That is a profession that became dominated by men. I mean how the hell did that happen? So they told a story about women’s bodies. And they not just marginalised midwives, they shamed the very practice of midwifery – of women who understood the most intimate things about a woman’s body that women needed to know. It became a kind of sorcery to the medical establishment. So there you have an example of a conventional wisdom, an orthodoxy that should be challenged. We’re living in a time where everything is up for examination and re-examination. Asking, where did that story come from? Why do I think that? There will always be maverick intellectuals who’ll tell us, for example, that climate change is not happening. And we can can latch on to any of those maverick thinkers and make that the rule. So expertise, coming back to that point, is derided. Sometimes it should be questioned, but not to the extent that it often is. We’re in this really difficult interregnum in world history where all the certitudes are being exploded and technology is being used to set us against each other. And the business model for journalism is broken, we haven’t even talked about that. Would you rather place your trust in someone who’s just posted an opinion on his blog page, or someone who has spent months on a story testing theories, searching for the facts? We’re in an information ecosystem where it’s all the same to a lot of people. And for me the antidote is for us to do what brings us alive, what gives us meaning. I would also say, and this is a complete pipe dream, that if you were to ever want to successfully run any nation again, you would have to ban social media. For all the good that it can do, the harm is much greater. It’s not going to happen. No one’s going to do it. Well, Myanmar’s just done it, but on the back of a military coup.

There’s a quote on a wall downstairs in our offices, something along the lines of, “When you are brave you can be gentle with anyone.” I’ve always loved it because it reminds me of the need to be compassionate with people who you don’t agree with. But it also reminds me of the fact that when you’re sitting in the car with your cousin, on some level you need to be brave because there is a very natural sense of being threatened, your security is challenged. I think that we have to remember and be kind to ourselves, that this need for security is completely human. As you were talking I was thinking, “Well when are we most secure?” I have a two-year old and for her, the feeling of being held in those early days, weeks, months by her mother, being fed, being close, being embraced, being protected, nourished, is probably the most connected and safest she’ll ever feel. And what that brings up for me is this physical need for us to connect with Mother Nature to find that deepest sense of safety once again. As you said, what Indigenous people worldwide have long understood.

I agree. We register the pain of nature in the deepest, most intimate parts of ourselves. Millions of people present to their therapists with traumas of the heart and head. At some level it may well be this disconnect from nature. And our disconnect as a species from nature. Because nature is hurting and we’re hurting along with it. So I agree with you that beyond the devices and this world of collective attention deficit disorder, beyond all of that there are the rocks and the trees and the birds and the people we love. It’s all there, if we’re lucky enough, winking at us. Beckoning us. Still there for us. We have to step away from the corrosion of character that is taking place over here and walk towards that.

Mele-Ane Havea

Mele-Ane comes to Dumbo Feather with a varied background, from corporate law to community and human rights law, with an Oxford MBA thrown in for good measure. At business school and the Skoll Centre for Social entrepreneurship, Mele-Ane became enamoured by the idea of social and responsible business, and the power of story-telling. When not rallying the troops at Dumbo Feather, she works on a number of projects that promote the idea of business as force for good, in particular with the B corporation movement.

 

Photography by Toby Burrows

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